UC Davis Researchers Point to Government as Culprit for Fallow Land

Government Policies—not Drought—Blamed for Fallow Land

 

By Patrick Cavanaugh

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed”¹ water deliveries.

Not even drought can be blamed for land fallowing due to lack of water deliveries to Central Valley federal water users.

 

Jason Peltier, manager of the Federal water district, San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, said, a UC Davis study released this week, “Economic Analysis of the 2016 Drought For California Agriculture,” has confirmed that failed government water policiesnot a lack of rainfall and snow pack—are responsible for the widespread water shortages and the fallowing of more than 300,000 acres of land in the federal water districts on the Westside of Fresno and Kings Counties.

San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority

“It raises this question,” Peltier asked, “When do we get honest and start talking about the regulatory drought—the man-made drought, the policy-induced drought, the policy-directed drought? We can’t even have an honest conversation about that.”

 

 

“That our opponents want to deflect and obscure that whole conversation is telling,” he continued, “because we have a tremendous story of adverse economic impact as a result of failed policies. When they tried to protect the fish, they took our water away and they made the supply unreliable. ‘Just a huge failure and they don’t want to address it; they don’t want to deal with it. The same agencies are fixated with their false confidence or their false certainty, their false precision, in terms of how to help the fish.”

 

Peltier explained the regulators failed to deliver all of the 5% allocation [née water delivery reduced by 95%] to growers california drought fallow landin the federal water districts south of the Delta. “It’s nonsense,” he reiterated, that part of the insufficient 5% was never delivered this season. “It’s avoidance of the reality that the regulators have constricted the heck out of the water projects and made it so—even in wet years, and like this year, a normal to wet year—we’ve got huge amounts of land out of production,” Peltier said, adding that almond growers in the federal water districts are not getting a late, post-harvest irrigation, which can hurt next year’s production.


¹Inscription on the James Farley Post Office in New York City

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Breaking News: Contracted Contractual Water Deliveries Could Plummet

Breaking News: 

Promised Water Deliveries Could Plummet

Delta Smelt Among Many Reasons for Pumping Constraints

By Emily McKay Johnson, Associate Editor

Farmers in the federal water districts of Fresno and Kings Counties were granted only five percent of their contracted water this year; yet they are at risk of getting even less due to pumping constraints. Jason Peltier, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a Los Banos-based federal water district explained, “The original forecast had full pumping in June, July, August, and September.

“Because of the temperature constraints and because of the water quality standards,” Peltier stated, “we’ve been operating only one or two pumps. There’s just not enough water flowing south to meet the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (Reclamation) obligations to the exchange contractors, the [wildlife] refuges and the urban agencies, along with the 5% allocation to the ag services contractors,” he noted.

SLDMWAPeltier is concerned for those in the Central Valley, and water agencies are working frantically to find answers. “We’re working on it,” Peltier affirmed. “We’ve got a lot of engineers and operators preparing spreadsheets and analyzing both the variables and what changes could be made to avoid lower water levels at San Luis Reservoir.”

Commenting on this year’s deliveries, Peltier stated, “No doubt we’re in an unprecedented operating environment. Here we are, eight months into the water year, and we just got a temperature plan for Lake Shasta—that is driving the whole operation—the project. Limiting releases like they are in the temperature plan [designed keep the water cold to protect winter-run salmon eggs]at least we thoughtwould allow Reclamation to hold the commitments they made. But we’re on razor’s edge right now,” Peltier explained.

Peltier described how the process is holding up water release, “The National Marine Fisheries Service wants to keep as much water in storage as possible, in order to keep the cold water cool as long as they can. This is all to protect the winter-run salmon eggs that are in the gravel right now, protect them until the weather turns cool and things naturally cool down. Then they can release water. Shasta’s been effectively trumped by another million-acre feed because of this temperature plan.”

Peltier further noted that the Lake Shasta temperature plan has not allowed water to flow into the Sacramento River. It has severely impacted growers in Northern California on a year when the northern part of the state received above average rain and snowfall during the winter.

“People diverting off the river in the Sacramento Valley have had their own water level issues. There hasn’t been enough water coming down the river to get elevation enough adequate for their pumps. There’s been a lot of ground water pumping,” he said.

The nearly extinct Delta Smelt has been a longstanding issue for those affected by California’s drought. After the past five years of sacrifice, even more water is being taken from agriculture and cities to help save the fish from extinction.

“We’ve got the California Department of Fish and Wildlife wanting significant increases in delta outflow over the summer, supposedly for the benefit of delta smelt, another operational complexity that is sadly not based on any science that we could see. The agencies have their beliefs, and they have the power,” said Peltier.

Featured photo: Jason Peltier, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority.


California Ag Today will update readers on Bureau of Reclamation announcements about the 5% contracted water delivery federal water district growers were expecting.

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BREAKING NEWS: California Water Authorities Sue U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The following is a joint statement by Jason Peltier, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District on today’s filing of a lawsuit to compel the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation to reassess its Endangered Species Act (ESA)-related actions.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Fails to Consider the Environmental Impacts of Biological Opinions Which Have Been Devastating Communities

FRESNO, CA-TODAY the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority (SLDMWA) and Westlands Water District (WWD) filed a lawsuit in federal court to compel the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (“Reclamation”) to examine the effectiveness of the existing measures intended to protect endangered species, the environmental impacts of those measures, and whether there are alternatives to those measures that would better protect both endangered fish species and California’s vital water supplies.

San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority The existing measures, adopted in 2008 and 2009, are based on biological opinions issued under the Endangered Species Act.  The measures are responsible for the largest redistribution of Central Valley Project and State Water Project (water supplies away from urban and agricultural uses and have jeopardized the water supply for waterfowl and wildlife refuges.  Since 2008 and 2009, the farms, families, cities and wildlife that depend upon Central Valley Project and State Water Project water supplies have suffered substantial environmental and socio-economic harm from the reduced water deliveries caused by the existing measures, with little apparent benefit for fish.

Reclamation adopted the existing measures without any review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  Federal courts, including the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, held this action violated NEPA, and Reclamation was ordered to perform environmental review.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote:

It is beyond dispute that Reclamation’s implementation of the Biological Opinions (BiOp) has important effects on human interaction with the natural environment.  We know that millions of people and vast areas of some of America’s most productive farmland will be impacted by Reclamation’s actions.  Those impacts were not the focus of the BiOp….  We recognize that the preparation of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIS) will not alter Reclamation’s obligations under the ESA.  But the EIS may well inform Reclamation of the overall costs – including the human costs – of furthering the ESA.

The court-ordered review provided Reclamation a rare opportunity to reexamine the necessity for and the benefits of the existing measures, as well as the resulting impacts on the environment and water supplies, potential alternative measures, and new information and studies developed since 2008 and 2009.  It provided Reclamation an opportunity to make a new and better-informed choice.

Unfortunately, Reclamation neglected to take advantage of that opportunity. In November 2015 Reclamation completed an EIS that did not examine whether the measures are necessary or effective for protecting endangered fish populations.  Instead of analyzing the existing measures, Reclamation accepted them as the status quo.U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The EIS did not identify any mitigation for the water supply lost to these measures, despite current modeling that estimated how the existing measures would reduce the annual water delivery capabilities of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project. Loss was estimated to be over 1 million acre-feet on a long-term average and in spite of years of harm caused by implementing the measures.

Nor did the EIS try to identify alternatives that could lessen these impacts.  Reclamation attempted to minimize the impacts of lost surface water supply by unreasonably assuming the lost supply would be made up from increased pumping of already stressed groundwater supplies.  In its Record of Decision issued January 11, 2016 Reclamation announced that it would continue on with the existing measures, and provide no mitigation.

It is inexplicable that Reclamation would pass up the opportunity to reassess the existing measures and make a much more careful and robust analysis than what is found in the EIS.  NEPA requires no less.

The lawsuit filed today seeks to compel Reclamation to do the right thing and perform the analysis it should have.  If successful, the lawsuit may ultimately result in measures that actually help fish, and identify mitigation activities or alternatives that lessen or avoid water supply impacts that millions of Californians in the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project depend on.

Many of those affected reside in disadvantaged communities and are already struggling to pay for a water supply made scarce by layers of other, yet equally ill-advised bureaucratic regulations.  California’s water supply is too precious for Reclamation not to make the best informed decision it can.

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California Water Cutbacks Are Not Saving Delta Smelt

U.S. Supreme Court to rule on ESA-mandated water curtailments to protect Delta Smelt regardless of the cost to humans and economy

 

A summary of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Fall Midwater Trawl Survey (FMWT) reports the lowest index for Delta Smelt in the 48-year history of this survey. The FMWT is mandated by the Delta Smelt Biological Opinion for the coordinated operation of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.

Jason Peltier, Chief Deputy General Manager of the Westlands Water District, sees these results as the “latest evidence of a failed regulatory regime.”

CDFW-Insignia-146x193The memorandum, sent from Steven Slater, CDFW Environmental Scientist, Region 3, to Scott Wilson, CDFW Regional Manager, Region 3, describes the Survey which annually measures the fall abundance of pelagic fish—fish which live neither near the bottom of oceans or lakes, nor near the surface, such as ocean coral reefs—since 1967. FMWT equipment and methods have remained consistent since the survey’s inception, which allows the indices to be compared across time.

According to the Memorandum, the FMWT annual abundance index is the sum of monthly indices from surveys conducted over the four months from September through December each year. During each monthly survey, one 12-minute oblique midwater trawl tow is conducted at each of 100 index stations used for index calculation and at an additional 22 non-index stations that provide enhanced distribution information.

The 2014 Delta Smelt index is 9, making it the lowest index in FMWT history. Delta Smelt abundance was highest in 1970 and has been consistently low since 2003, except in 2011.

Other fish also scored poorly. The 2014 age-0 Striped Bass index is 59, making it the third lowest index in FMWT history. Age-0 Striped Bass abundance was highest at the survey’s inception in 1967. The 2014 Longfin Smelt index is 16, making it the second lowest index in FMWT history. Longfin Smelt abundance was highest in 1967. The 2014 Threadfin Shad index is 282, which is the sixth lowest in FMWT history and the seventh in a series of very low abundance indices. Threadfin Shad abundance was highest in 1997. The 2014 American Shad index is 278, which is the second lowest in FMWT history and only slightly higher than the 2008 index of 271. American Shad abundance was highest in 2003. (Figures 2 through 6, below, illustrate these indices.)

2014_FMWT_graphs 1-4_Page_1 2014_FMWT_graphs 1-4_Page_2

In, “Delta smelt legal battle heads to Supreme Court,” published Wednesday in the LA Times, reporter David Savage, stated, “The delta smelt may be a small fish with a short life, but it has spawned a decades-long legal battle over water in California.
At issue has been a series of orders under the Endangered Species Act that at times reduce water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to San Joaquin Valley growers and urban Southern California.”

Citing the severe state drought, the article reports that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California attorneys are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider a strict federal rule from the 1970s that calls for curtailing the water diversions to protect the threatened delta smelt and other imperiled species regardless of the cost to humans and the economy.”

Lawyers for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr. urged the court to turn down the appeals, the article states, saying the 9th Circuit was correct in saying Fish and Wildlife officials must take reasonable steps to protect an endangered species, regardless of the economic effect.

Kate Poole, an NRDC attorney, said the water agencies have “a long history of exaggerating the impacts “of protecting endangered fish in the delta, including Chinook salmon,” per the LA Times. “The underlying problem in California is that our demand for water consistently exceeds our supply, even in non-drought years,” she said. “Wiping out our native fisheries will not solve this problem.”

 

In response to the NRDC comments, the California Farm Water Coalition electronically published the following Today:

Kate Poole’s remarks, that farmers have exaggerated the impacts of ESA-based water supply cuts, would be insulting to the thousands of farmers, farmworkers, and local business owners who face not just bankruptcy, but the loss of their way of life. Hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland have been permanently fallowed. Farmers have switched to higher value crops to justify higher costs for reduced water supplies. Farmworkers have moved away, seeking employment because of job losses in communities like Firebaugh, Mendota and Huron.”

Communities were developed on the faith that was placed in the federal government to keep its promise to deliver reliable supplies of water through the Delta.  While the impacts of reduced water supplies seem insignificant to the lobbyists and lawyers from the kinds of powerful environmental organizations represented by Poole, for those whose very livelihoods are dependent on this water it is a constant struggle.

 

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California Drought Puzzle: Store or Conserve More Water?

(Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle)

 

by Peter Fimrite, SF Chronicle

 

There was a time not long ago when much of civilized society considered each drop of river water that reached the ocean a wasted resource.

That was before environmentalists pointed out the benefits of the outflow to fish, wildlife and the ocean ecosystem, setting off an ongoing tug-of-war between fishermen and farmers in California that has reached a critical stage this year as the state struggles through a drought.

One thing that’s become clear amid the fallow cropland and rationing is that there is not enough water storage in California to sustain all the competing interests. The dilemma has again put a spotlight on the precious water that gets away.

In an average year, rain and snowmelt in California generate about 71 million acre-feet of water, some of which is captured in reservoirs or groundwater basins. An acre-foot is the amount needed to cover an acre with a foot of water, enough to supply an average household for a year.

About 32 percent of the 71 million acre-feet are used for agriculture and 10 percent for urban areas, according to the state Department of Water Resources’ chief hydrologist, Maury Roos.

About 35 percent of the total is reserved by law to help river ecosystems, wetlands and fisheries, and to maintain a healthy flow of water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

That leaves about 21 percent of the total to flow out into the ocean without being used for anything, according to Roos’ calculations.California drought puzzle- store or conserve more water

“That is the segment we can capture more of,” Roos said. “If we could store more of that, we would have a larger water supply.”

Trouble is, nobody in California can agree on how, or even whether, to capture it.

Storage, conservation

Everybody agrees that something must be done to quench California’s ever-increasing thirst. The question is whether the state should spend billions of dollars capturing the water behind dams and distributing it through new pipelines or spend a little less money by maximizing usage through conservation.

A laundry list of proposals, including water recycling, groundwater storage and even cloud seeding, are listed in a working draft of the California Water Plan, a comprehensive blueprint for future management of the resource.

It is nevertheless Gov. Jerry Brown‘s proposal to build twin water tunnels to bypass the delta and take water south that is getting all the attention. The project, which is part of the Delta Conservation Plan, would include restoration of marsh habitat in the delta.

Jason Peltier, the deputy general manager for the Westlands Water District, said farmers generally support the tunnels because the project would free up more water for agriculture.

“Most years there is plenty of water in the system that we can’t get to because of operating restrictions,” Peltier said. “We’ve seen over the last 20 years layer upon layer of regulatory restrictions that have taken away water for humans and allocated it for the environment.”

Problem is, the tunnels could cost anywhere from $25 billion to $67 billion, according to recent estimates.

California’s reservoirs

In a typical wet year, California captures about 10 million acre-feet of water in its reservoirs, about 80 percent of which is held in the state water department’s two biggest reservoirs behind Shasta and Oroville dams.

That’s well below the 43 million acre-feet capacity of the 1,200 reservoirs under the jurisdiction of the state water department. The reason, said Roos, is that the department is required to release water for fish and wetlands management and must also leave space during winters to avoid flood-causing overflows.

More unallocated water would be captured from waterways like the American River in one proposal in a draft water plan. Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle

Yet, agricultural interests support expanding California’s reservoir capacity by adding 18.5 feet to Shasta Dam and building Sites Dam, near the town of Maxwell (Colusa County), and Temperance Flat Dam, near Millerton (Madera County) on the San Joaquin River.

These proposals, like the tunnels plan, are expensive. The Shasta dam and Sites proposals together would cost about $3.5 billion and add about 2.6 million acre-feet of water to the system, just enough to “take you through one dry year,” Roos said.

Meanwhile, environmental groups mostly oppose the tunnels and water storage projects. The existing dams and conveyance system, they say, cut off the historic salmon and steelhead trout runs and have imperiled other fish populations, like the delta smelt. Instead, they are pushing for water conservation, treatment and recycling plants.

Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist for the Bay Institute, said water bond money would be better spent replacing thousands of old leaking water mains around the state, implementing tiered water rates and building storm-water capture and water recycling systems.

“It simply doesn’t make sense for us to be flushing toilets with pristine water transported miles from the Sierra Nevada,” Rosenfield said. “The notion that it just gets used once and then it is gone is crazy.”

Recycling success

Conservationists point to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California as the model for a successful recycling program. The district has built over the past two decades a wastewater treatment and reclamation system that cleans dirty household water and then filters it into the groundwater for reuse later on.

Tom Stokely, the water policy analyst for the California Water Impact Network, said Los Angeles County now uses less water than it did 30 years ago despite having at least a million more residents.

“It’s really up to the Legislature and the individual water districts to take this up, but if they use up all their borrowing on the twin tunnels there won’t be money left over for these things,” said Stokely, adding that statewide recycling and conservation programs could save 2 million acre-feet of water a year. “We see it as an either-or scenario. Do we have a sustainable water future or do we spend all our resources on costly tunnels and water storage projects?”

None of the various ideas would solve California’s water shortage problems, which are more severe than most people realize, according to regulators.

Capturing more water

California would need six times more water storage than it now has to make it through a worst-case-scenario drought, Roos said. That amounts to an additional 18 million acre-feet of storage. Water analysts at UC Davis estimate that all of the dam proposals together would only add 4 million or 5 million acre-feet, at a cost of $6 billion to $8 billion.

Meanwhile, demand just keeps growing as more people move into the state. It is a situation that can only get more dire as the world warms up, snow in the mountains decreases and droughts become more common.

Ultimately, Californians will have to come to grips with the fact that, no matter what gets done, the state will never be drought proof, said Jay Lund, the director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

“I think there will be some ability to improve, mostly in terms of giving incentives to store groundwater in wet years and to move water from north to south – efficiencies like that – but you can’t make it rain,” Lund said. “In the end, we will still be living in a semi-arid climate, and we will still have droughts. Most of what we can do is make it easier to prepare for the next drought.”

California’s drought

Find additional coverage at www.sfgate.com/drought.

Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: pfimrite@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @pfimrite

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